By Tyler Orsburn Catholic News Service
BROWNSVILLE, Texas (CNS) — Gustavo Rodriguez knew he couldn’t study math forever.
The impoverished conditions in his town in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas in the early 1980s just wouldn’t allow it. So instead of crunching numbers with a pencil and notepad his parents couldn’t afford, he decided to pinch centavos elsewhere, away from home.
And so the story begins of a life abroad where endings and beginnings meet at sunrise, high noon and sunset.
By 1992, after a short construction stint laying foundations in Houston, the 44-year-old said in Spanish that he met his wife, Columba, closer to the meandering Rio Grande River in Brownsville. The couple relied on a heavy dose of Lone Star self-reliance, mowing lawns, cleaning houses and raising three young girls.
Some 21 years later, their oldest daughter is in her third year of studies at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, and their second daughter, Alejandra, is graduating from high school at Marist-run St. Joseph Academy.
“My dad loves math,” Alejandra said describing her dad’s commitment to helping her finish homework as a child. “And he always wanted to become a teacher. However, the circumstances he lived in didn’t allow that to happen.”
To some, starting a life in Brownsville is no different a truth than setting up shop across the border.
“It’s probably one of the poorest demographics in the country,” Bishop Daniel E. Flores of Brownsville said describing the region’s employment opportunities. “As someone once told me, ‘Here in the Rio Grande Valley you have the First World and the Third World and they could be across the street from each other.’ Houses aren’t finished, dirt floors are being worked on but (only) as time and money permits.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median household income in 2014 was $32,288.
But on the campus of St. Joseph Academy economic disparities are hard to identify. Alejandra blends in with her other smartphone-texting, uniform-wearing classmates.
“I might not have a Mac, but I do have a laptop,” she told Catholic News Service after spending a Saturday afternoon with her friends at the zoo. “And that’s more than other people have. My parents are really humble people. They’ve always tried to provide me with the best.”
“One would assume because it’s a private Catholic school that everyone is privileged,” English and literature teacher Avy Jaimes-Torres said between classes. “And that’s not necessarily always the case. So it’s interesting to know you have kids that are on scholarship, you have kids that come from Mexico every day, you have kids that are over-privileged, but yet their families are never around because in order for them to provide (for them) … They have that kind of absence.”
To offset tuition and fees that can exceed $10,000, Alejandra earned her keep by maintaining good grades and being a role model in the community. During her senior year, the Montagne Project, which is a scholars program, and the Pena Family Scholarship Fund covered all her classroom expenses.
“It’s about creating opportunities and access for people,” Michael Motyl, president of St. Joseph Academy said. “I think anyone is capable of achieving great things regardless of where they grew up or their parent’s financial resources. So to help kids and families realize they can do great things, and have great opportunities, sometimes they just need certain doors open for them.”
During the 2015-2016 academic year, Motyl said, the Montagne Project funded 19 students.
Back at home after a long Saturday of mowing grass and cleaning houses, Gustavo and Columba took a break from cooking dinner and ordered pepperoni pizza from Little Caesars. With their three daughters sitting around them, they shared sweet tea and laugh about college life.
A print of the Last Supper hung on a wall behind the dining table. “I’ll be so proud to see all my girls fulfilled,” Gustavo said in Spanish. “I hope all my daughters reach their goals. So they can be somebody and not struggle the way we did.”
Having been accepted to the far off University of Texas at San Antonio, Alejandra mulled life abroad.
“My culture is very close to our parents, and moving out is a big deal,” she said. “I am kind of nervous to be on my own but at the same time I think it’s very exciting to see how I can be independent away from my parents.”